Setting vs mixed ability

Written by: HTU | Published:

Sir Michael Wilshaw tells us that mixed-ability can harm the more able. Boris Johnson stands up in favour of grammar schools. Should our schools be more selective and put children back into sets? Suzanne O’Connell takes a look

We are not unused to mixed messages in education. But what do you do when the head of Ofsted recommends one approach and best practice guidance seems to recommend another?

Sir Michael Wilshaw has been quoted recently as raising doubts about schools’ motivation for mixed-ability teaching while also suggesting that this approach is less effective for the more able. On the other hand, the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that there is little, if any, evidence that grouping according to ability works.

To set or not to set

The setting versus mixed-ability debate is not new. In the 1960s setting and streaming were popular but suffered a set back with the publication of the Plowden Report with its emphasis on a child-centred approach. From the 1970s onwards setting was out of favour but began to make a comeback in the mid-1990s. In 1997, the then Department for Education and Employment suggested that schools should consider setting pupils by ability in order to raise standards.

How you organise your children is of fundamental importance. In Effective Classroom Organisation in Primary Schools: Mathematics (2001), a study from the Institute of Economic and Social Research (IESR), the following alternatives are identified:

• Age – used as the basic grouping method in England with some variations according to size of school.

• Streaming – where children of a similar ability are grouped together for all subjects.

• Setting – where children are placed with other children of similar ability in a particular subject, such as a maths or English set.

• Mixed-ability grouping – the span of attainment is managed by the class teacher using within class grouping or differentiation according to ability. • Whole-class teaching and learning.

The study looks at the effects of setting on attainment and came to the conclusion that mixed-ability grouping was preferable due to its impact on the tail of underachievement and its social and equitable benefits.

It also concludes that there is no support for the view that lower key stage 2 children learn more effectively in sets for maths at any attainment level: “The expectation of greater gain by schools choosing to set by ability was not supported by the figures; in fact the results supported a tentative conclusion by the author that children of all levels of attainment do better when taught in mixed-ability groups.”

It reports that pupils in mixed-ability classes showed an average gain in test scores of up to seven per cent over those taught in set classes, and suggests that “policies of setting were adopted primarily to make the teachers’ tasks more manageable”. There is agreement that it is perhaps the lower ability who benefit most from mixed-ability groups “as they observe how others approach problem-solving and calculating in mathematics”.

Where sets are used, expectations for the less able may be low and setting can have a tendency to widen the ability gap, making mixed-ability teaching more difficult in the future.

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s view

There have always been strong advocates on behalf of both setting and mixed-ability grouping. No louder or stronger perhaps than Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw’s. In September, he was reported as referring to “the curse of mixed-ability classes without mixed-ability teaching”.

This is not a direct criticism of mixed-ability arrangements themselves but more of an attack on the teaching that accompanies them. He qualifies his criticism later with: “Where there are mixed-ability classes, unless there is differentiated teaching … it doesn’t work.” He is then reported to have added that effective differentiated teaching is “hugely difficult” to achieve. He suggests that rather than being concerned with good practice, schools are using mixed-ability for “social engineering”.

Examining the context of the comments, it becomes apparent that Sir Michael probably has secondary schools in mind. His attack fuelled by the statistics that 20 per cent of pupils who left primary school with higher than expected Level 5 results did not achieve A* and A and B grades at GCSE.

It would be beneficial for Sir Michael to indicate more clearly whether his comments are also aimed at primary schools. The chief inspector’s views count. Although Ofsted inspectors are reminded in documentation that they “must not expect teaching staff to teach in any specific way or follow a prescribed methodology” – a strongly held view by the chief of Ofsted is hard to ignore.

Sir Michael’s comments are not substantiated by the IESR research which suggests that children of average or high ability did not appear to suffer from mixed-ability teaching and that their capacity for more independent learning might be partly responsible for this. Her findings are supported by other pieces of evidence and are endorsed through The Sutton Trust and Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

The Teaching and Learning Toolkit

In the toolkit, Higgins et al. summarise the research evidence for 21 different strategies that might be used to support pupils funded by the Pupil Premium. It is intended that the toolkit will help schools to allocate their funding. The importance of the toolkit has been heightened by a recent Ofsted report. The Pupil Premium:

How schools are using the Pupil Premium funding to raise achievement for disadvantaged pupils suggests that many schools are using it to shore up their budgets: “Often schools did not disaggregate the Pupil Premium from their main budget, and said that they were using the funding to maintain or enhance existing provision rather than to put in place new activity.”

The toolkit does not recommend ability grouping and describes it as having very low or negative impact for very low or no cost. As a strategy, it comes very close to the bottom of the chart in terms of levels of effectiveness.

The authors do acknowledge that “there may be some benefits for higher attaining pupils in some circumstances” and identify gifted and talented programmes as an example. However, they add: “These benefits are largely outweighed by direct and indirect negative effect on the attitudes and engagement of low attaining and disadvantaged pupils.” The very group that the Pupil Premium is designed to support.

Instead, the Toolkit promotes more flexible grouping arrangements based on task rather than routine setting. Higgins et al. indicate that one difficulty with setting is its association with ability as a fixed construct rather than something that can be improved with effort.

Our conclusions

Headteacher Update asked for the views of some primary heads on mixed-ability versus sets. Heidi Conner, headteacher of Jubilee Park Primary in the West Midlands, said: “We favour mixed-ability teaching because of its social and equitable benefits, and the fact that we encourage our teachers to see all of our pupils as having different needs, abilities and working styles.”

Catriona Stewart is headteacher at Kingsmead Primary School in Cheshire. She can see the benefits and disadvantages of both approaches: “With ability groups you have reduced teacher planning but lower ability children don’t have the benefit of peer support from those with a good grasp of the subject.

“With mixed-ability you can be more fluid and with a skilful teacher the children can try work at a harder level or seek more support as required. However, it does require better quality teachers to work well.”

Ms Stewart is also worried about the accuracy of any sets: “Children who are poor at number, the usual criteria for maths grouping, may be in the top group for shape, poor readers can be better writers.”

However, setting is not always ruled out. Ms Conner explained: “We have tried setting pupils in various contexts over the years. Currently we do set pupils solely for the teaching of phonics across key stages 1 and 2. This has proved effective in reducing the size of groups for more targeted teaching and has made teaching more manageable for less experienced support staff.”

Issues of practicality are also taken into consideration at Harwell School in Oxfordshire. Headteacher Peter Cansell said: “We have ability groups within some classes for some lessons and this clearly makes a class more manageable for the teacher.”

However, he is very anxious that pupils do not suffer from lower self-esteem as a result: “All of our groups know that we value their efforts equally. I feel that wherever possible mixed-ability should be the norm in primary schools.”

The feeling seems to be that it isn’t an either/or. There are benefits in being flexible and adjusting your grouping according to need, and in some cases pupil numbers. Let’s hope Sir Michael Wilshaw and his inspectors will be flexible in their views too.

For more information

• Information from the Department for Education:

• Effective Classroom Organisation in Primary Schools: Mathematics, Whitburn, National Institute of Economic and Social Research, UK 2001.

• Pupil Grouping Strategies and Practices at Key Stage 2 and 3: Case studies of 24 schools in England, Kutnick et al. 2006.

• The Pupil Premium: How schools are using the Pupil Premium funding to raise achievement for disadvantaged pupils, Ofsted (2012). Visit

• The Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit, Professor Steve Higgins et al., Durham University (2012). Visit:

• Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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